comments-only grading

Comments and Parent Teacher Conferences without grades

Recently progress reports were sent to parents. No grades. The purpose was to focus on what students have (or not) learned, provide evidence for the learning progress (or gaps) and identify the next steps for further growth.

Teachers invested a good amount of time in developing and writing their comments according to guidelines developed by our assessment committee. Everyone strived to ensure that the comments were individualized and informative in describing learning and suggestions for advancement. It was a piece of information that went beyond the data found in PowerSchool to which students and teachers have full access.

In fact, one progress report arrived at our home for our 13-year old son. For the first time I actually felt like a mailed report from school was communicating something worthwhile. The comments were informative, revealing strengths and suggestions for improvement that, if heeded,  will yield better learning practices for our developing student.

Shortly thereafter parents filed into my classroom one after the other for parent-teacher conferences. Most of them had the printed comments in front of them. All of our discussions centered on student progress and how to foster continued growth. Not once were grades mentioned. Not once. It was incredible. Parents handled a child’s poster, a piece of work completed exclusively in class. They perused formative assessments and other assignments that would never have appeared in a backpack or on a table at home. The work demonstrated how well students follow directions, pay attention to detail, and how much they invest in their work. My preparations included plans to veer discussions away from a focus on grades but this topic was not once broached. We had so many more important details to discuss in the precious ten minutes that we shared. The conversation was completely focused on each child’s learning progress and how he/she can become an even better student.

The value of comments-only reporting became even more apparent as discussions among teachers ensued following the conference evening. Others also experienced a similar experience of positive interactions focusing on student learning. Indeed, meaningful narrative is so much more productive than reviewing grades. 

No grades, Comments only, please.

All of them bent their heads intently over their papers.  They were furiously writing and responding to the colored marks on the pages – and I hadn’t even asked them to!  I almost didn’t know how to proceed, as I hadn’t expected this reception.  So I just waited and observed their productivity.  One student asks, “What do you mean by this comment?”  I explain and then he replies, “Oh! I get it!” and proceeds to write.  Another girl seeks clarification in understanding.  Another ponders a deeper response to one of the questions she had already written on.

What is going on?  Students are responding to comments-only feedback I had written on their lab write-ups.

In the Dylan Wiliam conference I attended a month ago, we were advised that feedback should “move learning on” and should “put learning in the hands of the learner”.  We were told that this type of feedback is best in the form of comment-only marking.  Dylan further shared with us a somewhat controlled study in which the same teachers working in several different classrooms in several different schools administered assessments with three different kinds of feedback: 1) Comments only, 2) Grades only, 3) Comments + grades.  Only the students receiving comments-only feedback demonstrated improvement in achievement.

So, I decided to try it.

Last week my students had completed a series of reflective questions on a global warming lab activity we had carried out in class.  I wrote only comments on the reports with no grade indicated anywhere.  I must admit, it took some restraint to not tally the incorrect answers and put some kind of total on their papers.  Today I handed the students their lab papers and asked them to look through the comments to make sure they understood what I had written.  I was so surprised by the immediate reaction that ensued as they began pouring over their papers and my comments.  I was even more amazed when they picked up their pencils and began replying to the comments, without even being told to do so!  I think I stood there rather stunned for a few seconds as I processed what was happening. Then I thought, “Dylan Wiliam was right” and here is the evidence, the comments-only feedback put the learning in the hands of the learner and it moved learning on.  Oh, and not one student asked what the grade was.  

So, does this mean I’m on a track of developing a “no grades” policy?  Umm, No.  However, I do see myself using comments-only feedback in the beginning of a unit when students are developing understanding and then giving grades on assessments that are given later in the unit when mastery of the content and skills is expected.